Noticing and Wondering About Scaffolding

Often I wonder how much to explain or define for my students before engaging in the problem solving process.  Proponents of sense-making in mathematics classes like Dan Meyer and The Math Forum encourage presenting a perplexing scenario to students and letting them develop the questions to be answered using math.  This is a very enticing proposition.  Who wouldn’t want a math class which uses the Socratic method to solve problems as a community.  I do!  Professor Ilana Horn recently wrote a piece investigating the merits of this pedagogical philosophy with other popular options like Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.

Some students, however, need more scaffolding, language support, cultural background, or skill reinforcement before they are ready to grapple with a truly perplexing situation.

Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

For instance, what if your students view their zone of proximal development much differently than you, as the educator, do?  What if the student views every problem as lying in the outer ring, but it truly lies in the middle or inner ring according to your professional opinion?  Which leads into my question about problem-based learning.  How much do you scaffold for students who need it before you set them free to make sense of a great, perplexing mathematical scenario?

This is a major question for special education math teachers.  How much scaffolding is too much so that the process of solving the problem is taken out of the hands of the student?  One area where this comes up is when teachers are deciding what order in which to present information to students during the problem solving process.  As an example, here is a problem I have been developing in which there are two components.  Which of these components should go first in a truly problem-based classroom?  Maybe you can help me figure it out!

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